The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise celebrated three decades of existence in May. Like so many 30-year-olds, it’s made a few mistakes along the way. And so, on the occasion of this weekend’s vaguely anticipated, generally feared Michael Bay-ified reboot, here’s a look back across the wide expanse of the TMNT-verse that seeks to answer one question: What are the 37 worst things this franchise has ever created?
1. The Neutrinos.
Hot-rodding alien hipsters who look like what happens when Grease gets restaged by five-year-olds dressed up as British punk rockers by their sociopathic stage parents. Sample line of dialogue: “Cool? Daddio, we are frozen.” A middle-aged executive’s idea of what “kids” will think is “cool,” “cool” with quote marks being one of the key motifs of the Turtles franchise.
2. Krang’s Man-Suit.
Consider the android-locomotive-exoskeleton-whatever that the talking pink brain from a dimension so original that it’s called Dimension X wears. Also consider Ziggy, the beloved non-threatening andro-thing that taught America how to make a sound that was sort of a laugh but also a sigh at the same time.
3. The moment in Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze when Shredder becomes Super-Shredder and immediately kills himself by collapsing a dock onto his head.
You know the moment when the already-threatening Ganondorf becomes the gigantically horrifying Ganon at the end of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Imagine that immediately after becoming Ganon, the monster just thrashes around a bit and inadvertently stabs itself with its own tail. You might almost think that nobody involved with the production could come up with an exciting climax, so they settled for an anticlimax. “Settling for an anticlimax” being a motif for the Turtles franchise.
4. The fact that everyone in feudal Japan speaks English whenever the plot calls for it in Turtles III.
Sure, the English started trading with Japan in blah blah blah year; sure, it’s just a kid’s movie. But given how the whole basis for the Turtles franchise is rooted in an (initially faithful, later decidedly less so) appropriation of Japanese culture, couldn’t they have at least let one of the Turtles speak Japanese? Isn’t Donatello the smart one? Why does he get a lame “Hi-o, wasabi” joke? It’s a lame shortcut produced by lazy creative types who figure that the dumb kids watching this stuff won’t care anyways, “lame shortcut produced by etc. etc. etc.” being a motif for the Turtles franchise.
5. Casey Jones gets brought back in Turtles III to do absolutely nothing.
So you bring back Casey Jones–the hockey-playing vigilante whose presence was sorely missed from Ooze—and all he does is babysit some time-tossed samurai? There should be a law against such a flagrant misuse of Elias Koteas.
6. The final dance number in Turtles III, set to Technotronic’s “Rocking Over the Beat.”
7. Actually, everything about Turtles III.
Most of all because it’s the closest the universe will ever come to an adaptation of Turtles in Time, the least bad Ninja Turtles videogame. “Least bad” being a running motif etc etc.
8. That time Raphael time traveled from the future to the past to punch Hitler.
9. The 1990 concert tour “Coming Out of Their Shells.”
Watch, if you dare.
10.The rewrite of Baxter Stockman from an awesome villain in the comics to a lame villain in the early ’90s TV show.
In fairness, he was slightly cooler in the early-2000s series. “Slightly cooler in the early-2000s series” should be considered a blanket statement for nearly everything to do with the fondly-remembered, rarely-rewatched original TV series, which was barely-animated in stark contrast to the somewhat-animated later series.
11. The fact that Leonardo and Raphael never actually stab anybody even though they have pointed weapons.
Haha, yes, we’ve all heard this complaint before and yes we shouldn’t take this so seriously it’s just a dumb kids’ show, but isn’t this also a weird reflection of how kid-friendly depictions of “violence” have changed since the dawn of the Turtles? Like, we live in an era now where major family-friendly PG-13 blockbusters frequently kill off whole species of non-human characters. Movies and TV shows frequently indulge their audiences with horrific violence, which they justify by virtue of not actually killing human characters. (See: The Walking Dead.) So the Turtles, in their adaptation from a cool weird comic book to a lame popular TV show, decided to transform the Foot Clan from flesh-and-blood ninjas into robot ninjas, to the Turtles can kill all the robot ninjas they want to. Isn’t this something we should care about?
12. Donatello’s Staff.
13. Turtles Forever, where the turtles from the 2003 series meet the Turtles from the late ’80s-early ’90s series and absolutely no hijinks ensues because they’re both equally stupid.
It’s like watching a 13-year-old from the early 2000s who loves New Found Glory insult his older brother’s music taste because he loved Soundgarden.
14. The central core operating philosophy of the entire Turtles franchise that the entire world–nay, the entire cosmos–is run by a weird military-industrial complex where the military is “ninjas” and the industry is “mad scientists.”
15. The fact that every version of the turtles is a “teenager” who talks like what 30-year-olds think 12-year-olds think is cool.
16. The names “Bebop” and “Rocksteady.”
Were “Bossanova” and “Ragtime” already taken?
17. The fact that the Foot Clan are the least threatening henchmen of all time.
Thirty years of being nonthreatening. Even the stormtroopers in Star Wars occasionally shot somebody. (In the shoulder, but still.)
Darth Vader’s helmet, with unnecessary spikes and a lame purple cape. Attempts to make him cooler by making him a mutant/robot of some kind only magnify his inconsequence. If he were a Bond villain, he’d be the worst Bond villain in a Roger Moore movie.
19. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters.
“Kids love that Street Fighter, and they love that Mortal Kombat game where a bunch of players are fighting in a mystical tournament. Fighter, tournament, fighter, tournament…” “Boss, what if we make our own cut-rate version of a fighting game, call it Tournament Fighters, and score some easy money off the dumb kids who comprise our audience!” [Applause, sound of something being snorted]
20 and 21. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Melee and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up.
“Boss, what if we make our own cut-rate version of Super Smash Brothers?” “We did that four years ago. It was called Smash-Up.” “Well, let’s do it again! We can call it Mutant Melee!” “But isn’t that awful close to Super Smash Brothers Melee?” “What’s Nintendo gonna do, sue us? All our money’s in Swiss bank accounts and arms manufacturing!” [Applause, sound of a single tear falling onto the ground]
22. The dam stage from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game.
So impossible that you might almost think that the Turtles franchise produced a cut-rate quickie cash-in product to make some sweet sweet cash, a motif etc etc etc.
23. The Power Rangers crossover in Turtles: The Next Mutation.
Cheap live-action Turtles TV show: A bad idea. Staging a crossover with another terrible-but-cheap TV show for no apparent reason besides the fact that both shows were produced by Saban entertainment: Even worse.
Yes, Leonardo’s a lame leader and Michelangelo’s a doofy dumbskull and Donatello wears purple. But Raphael is the most influential and most horrific creation of the central foursome. The whole idea of “cool but rude” came to permeate the youth culture of the ’90s, and by extension, the youth culture of forever–a vague, bargain-James Dean anti-everything sentiment that mostly results in endless scenes of Raphael being a smarmy douche bucket. He is the DreamWorks Face incarnate. And a lot of kids think he’s the cool one!
25. The fact that April O’Neil is a propagandist who violates every code of journalistic ethics.
She’s not as bad as Clark Kent or Peter Parker. But she’s close.
26. The entirety of the movie TMNT.
The lackadaisical animation isn’t the worst part, because the Turtles have only ever really been poorly animated. The worst part is how the mid-00s CGI Turtles flirts with an actually interesting idea–what happens when the turtles grow up?–and then ambles into a bargain-basement monster-mash. Part of what makes the Turtles frustrating is that they’ve lasted so long without ever coming up with an interesting defining idea–some reason to care about these characters beyond the fact that they wear different-colored masks and have vaguely different personalities. TMNT comes close and then runs away.
27. The phrase “does machines” from the vintage Turtles theme song.
Not a thing.
28. “Ninja Rap” by Vanilla Ice.
Yes, haha, wow nostalgia, the ’90s sure were a crazy time! Except that everything about Vanilla Ice’s appearance speaks to the bargain-basement, let’s-squeeze-some-bloodcash-out-of-this-stone aesthetic of the Turtles franchise. A declining one-hit wonder pops in for an extended cameo in a movie, and the turtles dance with him to prove that they are some extremely corporate version of what is “in” now, and it doesn’t matter that the song is “bad” because someday the kids watching it will remember its badness longingly, and so the great wheel of nostalgia turns ever on and Michael Bay gets to buy a new island.
29. The new Turtles rap song by Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, and Ty Dolla $ign.
30. Actually, every part of every Turtles theme song.
The worst theme song from the Disney Afternoon has a grabbier melody.
31. That annoying kid in your class who kept insisting that turtles live in water, so the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would actually have to be tortoises.
That’s what you’re focused on, kid? The fact that this franchise isn’t scientifically accurate? Oh, thank god, I thought that all the cultural watchdogs had just decided to give the Turtles franchise a pass and that no one would ever discuss the fact that the whole idea of just mashing together a bunch of words into a so-bad-it’s-good cocktail wound up producing our modern age of mass entertainment where someone makes a big dumb Frankenstein movie and a movie called Cowboys & Aliens and somehow the relatively intelligent people who run major studios think this is a smart idea because hey whatever man people went to go see something called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! But I’m glad you’ve cleared things up, annoying kid in my class, because clearly the one big problem with this whole saga is that it’s not called Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortoises. Except no, because the one good thing about the franchise is that “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has a perfect trochaic rhythm of stressed/unstressed syllables, so take your science and shove it!
32. The Turtles franchise ruined anchovies for an entire generation.
They’re actually pretty tasty!
33. The internet controversy over Michael Bay’s decision to turn the mutant turtles into alien turtles, as if it somehow matters whether or not they’re mutants or aliens or anything.
Further evidence that our modern age of fandom has devolved into an angry-villager mob eternally chasing something with torches and a pitchfork.
34. Battletoads, Street Sharks, Extreme Dinosaurs, Biker Mice From Mars, and all the other imitators who were actually just as dumb as the turtles were.
In a parallel universe, Street Sharks is opening this weekend, and people are complaining that producer Michael Bay almost changed the origin of the Street Sharks so that they came from the future instead of from the street or wherever the Street Sharks came from, and none of it matters, not really, because there’s a new generation of kids who are buying Street Sharks toys and watching the Street Sharks spinoff show and the whole Street Sharks franchise has been passed between B-grade production studios for three decades now and has only produced craven cash-grab efforts that memory retcons into something “fun.”
35. The part in the new Turtles movie when Michelangelo describes Megan Fox’s April O’Neil thus: “She’s so hot I can feel my shell tightening.”
What’s this all even trying to appeal to now? Teenagers with bad taste? Kids whose parents don’t have time to monitor the bad tastes their forming? Adults who want their nostalgia reheated? What’s this all about, and how it is possible that so much money gets spent on it?
36. The fact that every iteration of the Turtles looks “cool” in a way that is already kind of lame at the time and will look completely lame in three years.
So there’s a mid-00’s CGI Turtles and now a gritty-dark Nolanized Turtles and the anime-vogue 2003 Turtles, all cheaper versions of much more interesting styles. When have the Turtles ever led the way? When have they ever influenced anyone, except to buy things or to come up with cut-rate imitations (see #33.)
37. Everything that has led to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” still being a thing after all these years.
You can make the argument that the early Turtles comics were good. You can also make the argument that, who cares, kids love kid stuff, and we all loved the Turtles when we were kids, so what’s the big deal anyways?
I get it. I had a Turtles-themed birthday party. I owned the cave-turtles, the space-turtles, whatever. But at what point do we stop letting things off the hook just because the younger/dumber versions of ourselves enjoyed those things? At what point do we take a stand against the modern globo-entertainment complex’ ability to resell us the same-old-same-old? At what point do we take stock of the deeper truth inside of the ongoing existence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–the weird real-life Producers melodrama of one company after another never going broke underestimating the taste of the adolescent American public–and acknowledge that the Ninja Turtles stand at the very center of our modern franchise era? That it’s like someone tried to imitate Star Wars but only really noticed how much Star Wars made in merchandising?
That the entire ongoing Turtles saga is like a cultural Ponzi Scheme where everyone has agreed with the fundamental idea that, even if essentially everything the Turtles brand has produced in the last thirty years is cut-rate and lacking in cultural value, the core concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-dom is still an endeavor worth encouraging? At what point do we, as consumers, become collaborators?